Vermont is synonymous with snowboarding, sugaring and farming. But those activities account for a fraction of the state’s economy. Traditional sectors such as manufacturing and health care play a big role, but the Green Mountain State is also home to a large and growing creative economy made up of "knowledge workers" who produce everything from software to film scores.
The Vermont Technology Alliance, a trade group representing the state’s software and technical companies, estimates that its members alone brought in $150 million in 2009; their revenue jumped to $280 million in 2011.
That year, the state created the Office of the Creative Economy, under the auspices of the Department of Economic, Housing & Community Development, to help support and expand these industries. The OCE absorbed the Vermont Film Commission, which had focused on luring film producers to Vermont. The OCE’s first director, Joe Bookchin, was the former head of the film commission; he resigned in late February.
Lars Hasselblad Torres, creator of Montpelier’s coworking and community-event space, Local 64, has stepped in to take Bookchin’s place. The energetic 42-year-old entrepreneur has a worldly background — he spent his childhood in Seattle and Malaysia, and went to high school in Senegal, earning his bachelor’s degree at Vermont’s School for International Training in 1995. He started a public-policy institute and helped craft prizes to promote innovation and entrepreneurship for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and USAID before founding Local 64 in 2012.
Over the past year, Torres has been a vocal proponent of the state’s creative economy, emceeing a “Tech State of the Union” event put on by partners including Google, Engine Advocacy and Seven Days in February, and organizing a video-game showcase in January at the Statehouse in Montpelier, where lawmakers heard from local developers hoping to grow their industry in Vermont. Last month, Torres wrote a white paper on creating coworking spaces that was published by the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.
Torres, who lives in Cabot with his wife and daughter, came to Winooski recently for a Vermont Technology Alliance lunch and learn on “Marketing Vermont as a Technology State.” We discussed his new job afterward over a pot of Rooibos at Dobrá Tea in Burlington. This is the extended version of our conversation; the first six questions and answers appeared in print in this week's Seven Days.
CATHY RESMER: You’re the new director of the Office of the Creative Economy. What does that mean?
LARS HASSELBLAD TORRES: I think that means a couple of things, at a high level. [The office] plays a role as a doormat for people looking for information about film. This is in part the result of the unique skill set of the past director. Some of those inquiries turn on permitting — what do I need to be able to shoot here in April? — location scouting and incentives. Those seem to be the three questions that are on my phone right now.
The more exciting piece is, how do we transform that entertainment-industry-facing office into something that’s broader and more relevant to the creative sectors that exist in Vermont today?
CR: Such as?
LHT: There are three that have been identified as priorities. Film and new media — emphasis on the new media. Advertising and marketing, which I’m not sure I completely understand, but it involves graphic designers, principally, illustrators, these kinds of folks. The third is software and game development.
There are lots of other areas that aren’t represented by the Office of the Creative Economy — performing arts, visual arts. And I think one of the reasons is, we have the Vermont Arts Council, we have the Humanities Council, we have local arts organizations, so there’s sort of an ecology there. We don’t really have a good ecology formed around these other sectors.
CR: Why is the state interested in developing them?
LHT: I think for a couple reasons. One, they create employment. Second, they create wealth, and there’s economic value there.
They’re green jobs. They’re good jobs to have in Vermont. They require a skill set that can be learned in our institutions of K-12 and higher ed, but, at the same time, they are jobs that you can grow into. You can retrain a workforce that perhaps isn’t doing well in agriculture, or somewhere else — maybe there’s an opportunity to advance those skills in service of a larger entity. If you were a dairy person, maybe you can become a marketing person for a cheese co-op.
CR: What do you think are the biggest opportunities?
LHT: A big one is new business starts. It’s a common theme that if you have skills in coding, in design, you’re not very far off from the capacity of building your own business and being self-employed, if you want.
Another goal is going to be in K-12 education, preparing young Vermonters for jobs at some of these great employers we have — IBM, for example. What kind of academic path is going to enable them to pass the math test so they can get into the programming jobs? A third opportunity is around post-secondary education and this notion of retaining more of our young workers. Creating internships and playing a matchmaking role in ensuring that young graduates know about opportunities at some really exciting companies.
Another opportunity is to encourage more seed capital for the formation of new businesses in Vermont. To be able to make that case to investors, we have to be able to tell a certain set of stories about high-growth companies that are here … that haven’t had to move to Boston or New York or elsewhere. Because of the nature of this [creative economy] work, you don’t have to be near manufacturing or distribution centers.
Maybe a harder-to-put-your-finger-on opportunity is, when Vermonters tell stories, do they tell a different kind of story? And if so, how can we promote those stories on the national stage? One role a film-commission-like entity could play is to champion the fact that [there are films with Vermont connections.]
I’m thinking of Safety Not Guaranteed. This film was scored by a Vermont musician and directed by a Vermonter. This idea of “made in Vermont” needs to extend beyond our food brands and into our creative output. Would Blair Witch Project have been a different film if it had been made by a Vermonter? Probably. How? Just kind of play around with the notion of the Vermont narrative.
Likewise with games. Education is a niche that Vermont could quickly occupy. We have Chris Hancock here, who produces educational reading games, and Toonuva Games. We have Birnam Wood [Games] trying to develop a different kind of strategy game. I think Vermont could get known for building a different kind of video game.
CR: How can your office help with that?
LHT: In a couple of ways. The first is brightening the spotlight. Making sure that people know about what’s happening here in Vermont. A second —
CR: But how? Like, literally, how does state government do that?
LHT: As a spokesperson, that’s one way. So if I’m in Boston at a digital conference, I could clearly be speaking to audiences directly and using Vermont cases to tell those stories. “Let me show you Birnam Wood Games, which went from a woman-owned company of one to Y in a period of two years because X.” Inspiring stories.
A second is through writing and creating publications. One of the things I’ve loved to do in my various jobs is to write monographs or case studies, little briefs that shine the spotlight on actors or policies or illustrative examples that inspire people to think in those terms.
[Also] by interfacing more and getting into a position where I can speak on behalf of our organizations to the press.
I think being present at forums like Peak Pitch, which matches investors with entrepreneurs. Say, “Mr. Investor from Draper, you really need to talk to Toonuva Games, because they’ve got a game engine for building 3-D games that’s going to change the industry a year from now.” Who knows? Playing that matchmaking, one-on-one role at the right kind of forums, I think, will be really helpful.
CR: Those are all outward-facing ways. At some point, do you come back and connect state government with all of this as well?
LHT: That’s a great question. You’re absolutely right. There needs to be internal-facing, too. I’m learning about our Community Development Block grants and things like that. I see arts organizations applying for those. And in principle, on paper, that looks great. But [CDBG grants are] really focused on low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. This is a HUD program. We need to get real about what are realistic funding mechanisms [that will] enable our arts organizations to thrive.
And if they don’t exist, you’re absolutely right, having that conversation in the Agency of Commerce, saying, "Look, if we’re really committed to this, we’re going to need to identify alternative streams of federal funding, or make the case that we can change the mandate of these funding instruments." I don’t know what that conversation could look like, honestly.
Maybe it’s also influencing new streams of funding from the state. With this game development summit we did in the Statehouse, we tried to make the case for $75,000 to help market [Vermont] at places where game developers congregate and share their cool shit — like the game developer conference that’s happening right now in San Francisco. What if we had an ambassador there? We could just cover the registration cost for somebody and all you’d have to do is place the Vermont brand here and there, and make at least 12 pitches for people to move their studios to Vermont.
Let’s find resources to empower Vermont creatives and experts to also tell that story. I don’t think we have to do all of that heavy lifting ourselves. I think there are people who, you saw this afternoon, people like David Parker [of Dealer.com], who are incredibly articulate and who are already telling that story. Is there anything we can do to incentivize more of that storytelling?
[Video: David Parker giving his 5-minute "Vermont's Greatest Opportunity" presentation at Ignite Burlington in October 2012; he gave a similar presentation at the VTTA lunch and learn.]
Honestly, I don’t know how much support the OCE has across the agency. It’s certainly not that well known. So there’s a very fast piece of work that has to be done to get OCE known statewide, known amongst our constituents, those we hope to serve, and then certainly within state government as well, so that we can become that smart router, where, "Oh, there’s a funding opportunity here, who can take advantage of it here?" — to get that information where it needs to be.
I don’t know yet what all the connections are within state government. I’m new to government. Which isn’t an excuse. It just means I’m going to have to get busy pretty fast.
CR: Before this, what were you doing?
LHT: I was doing two things. One, running my start-up, Local 64, which is a coworking space. Trying to also get to a place where I could speak on behalf of coworking as a nascant movement in Vermont, [explaining] its benefits to downtowns, and doing that with groups like VCET. And also trying to do other pieces of interesting research, like, how is Kickstarter being used in Vermont? What does that look like?And then use that as an opportunity to influence some agencies like the Arts Council to maybe think a little differently about how they work with artists and creatives, both the who — “Hell yeah, we should include game developers in your arts funding” — to the how — "Is there a way to leverage what you give by using tools like Kickstarter?"
I was also at the same time working to design innovation prizes for the office of science, technology and innovation at USAID. I’m a pretty big believer that incentive prizes can drive innovation in areas where it might not otherwise happen. Especially when you look at the developing world — places where there’s not a high incentive, from a market perspective, to innovate.
I think about rural eyecare. The machinery’s big and expensive, it’s a lot easier to go with the model of "Hey, everybody walk or drive 100 miles to a central clinic to get tested." iPhones and smartphones revolutionized that. You can put a prosthetic on that and send your doctors out to give remote diagnostic care and provide prescriptions.
So, how can our new technological moment create opportunities for solving problems that wouldn’t otherwise be solved?
CR: If you could create an innovation prize in Vermont, what would you create?
LHT: Oooh, yeah, I love that. I have no idea. But I would create a really awesome group of people to help me think about that.
I could come up with… I want a curriculum that integrates SparkFun kits into middle school, hands-on learning.
CR: What are SparkFun kits?
LHT: SparkFun kits are great sort of microcontroller kits with which you can build almost anything. They basically have three things: a microcontroller, a sensor input and a controller output. So with that basic package, you could, say, test the moisture in a terrarium and, when it gets below a certain level, activate a rain shower or whatever.
But it gets kids thinking about several things. One is basic electronics — how do you complete a circuit? — but two, how do you combine the power of microelectronics with code, to be able to really create a smart piece of technology? SparkFun is just one way of packaging Arduinos and other microcontrollers into a real hands-on learning kit — you’re programming it, you’re plugging it into your laptop and you’re writing the lines of code to get it to do x, and at the same time, you’re working with basic input-output kinds of formulas.
CR: Getting that into middle school?
LHT: Absolutely. Yeah. Because they’re awesome. I mean, there’s so much you can do with them.
It’s not a surprise that sometimes you’ll see kids at the more technically oriented colleges, the first thing they do when they get into their room is automate everything. From their iPhone, they can unlock the door, or lock it, or whatever. They just geek out.
But I think there’s an opportunity to bring that hobbyist I-can-solve-any-problem mentality to our students younger.
I sort of feel like right now, we’re in a little bit of a trap where technology in the classroom is consumption driven. "Here’s the great content, customize your learning and consume." I’d like to see that flip.
We have a great company here in Vermont called YourDuino, which is out of West Topsham. YourDuino is basically a SparkFun kit. It’s a little more sophisticated, a little more robust, more options in terms of different kinds of sensors. So even building on a Vermont-based company and getting their product into more schools gets young people out of the mode of consumption, and into problem solving and creation. And that’s the basic dynamic I’d like to see more of.
And I think it really maps well across the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] priorities, which, I really should be saying STEAM [the "A" is for Arts], because there’s a lot of art and design involved in making a really elegant finished product. It’s not just a question of "does it work," it's "does it look awesome, too? How do you sketch it? How do you conceive of it, sketch it and bring the final polish to it?"
I don’t know how I got off on that. Oh my God. What was your question?
CR: Ha! I was asking about the Vermont innovation prize.
LHT: Yeah, so ok, the innovation prize would be, how do we integrate, I don’t want to say robotics, because that’s not technically accurate, but how do we integrate microelectronics and microcomputing into hands-on learning in the classroom? Because I think it develops a really valuable skill set early. And more importantly, a way of looking at the world that I don’t know is out there. Which is that you can open anything, break it and put it back together. We need more of that. We do that with engines. Let’s do it with electronics.
CR: What kind of innovation prizes did you create at USAID?
LHT: We looked at many. Part of my job was to develop a strategy internally so that the agency could use them, right? So that was everything from procurement to "how do you set it up?" to "how do you identify the innovation space that you want to influence?" There’s a lot of strategy behind it, too.
But some of the ones that we did were, like, a tech challenge to prevent human atrocity, right? Are there ways that we can harness technologies to be more aware, faster, so that there are warning signs out there? Second, how can we get better at documenting those when they need to be documented, and getting that information to the authorities who can act on that information? The third is, how can we get technologies out there that protect people, that make civilians safer? And the fourth is also, then, on the sort of post-atrocity side, how can we use the information that we have as better evidence, admissable in court and things like that? How can we use technology to ensure that fewer perpetrators get off, so to speak?
So if you look at the human-atrocities tech challenge, it sort of broke the problem down into these areas and said, "OK, take any one of them and develop a solution for it." And the prizes were modest — $10,000 for the top prize. And the goal, I think, in this case, was ideation. It wasn’t a finished solution. Because part of the problem in that case is that we don’t have an authorized agency that can act on the new technologies.
Prizes can play different purposes. The purpose of this prize was, “Hey, let’s enlarge thinking and get more eyes on the problem.”
CR: Do you find that a cash prize is an effective motivator?
LHT: Yes, and it’s not the sole motivator, right? Like, if I think about my heirarchy of motivation, one of the motivators is, "Hey, is this a really awesome problem that I feel able to solve?" I think that people who are attracted to these competitions really like solving cool problems. So there’s that aspect to it. The other is, "Who am I going to encounter in this process? Are the judges people I want access to? If I do well, can this prize competition create access that I might not otherwise have?"
Another motivator is often, "If I solve this, will I be first to market? If I solve this well, will I have a product now that positions me very well relative to any other solution out there?" To somebody who’s already got a business, why not make that investment?
And it’s the certification you get as a result of the prize that’s probably more valuable than the prize itself.
To offer a contrast, you know, there’s the X Prize. They offer typically a million to 10 million dollars to solve a really grand challenge. Their sweet spot is creating whole new industries, right?
Privatized space flight — it’s a whole new industry. And they did that when Dick Rutan burst through the stratosphere. It cost Dick a lot more to win that than he got in the prize purse. But he was the first to market. And, hot damn, if the investors didn’t follow him. And he was able to raise $100 million because he won, right? So the motivator there was to capture the market, which he was well positioned to do. So I think X Prize functions really well at that sort of game-changing, big-problem stuff. There are lots of other small prizes, you know, business-planning competition prizes are really great.
CR: You haven't just created these competitions — you also won second place in Hack VT, last year's 24-hour hackathon organized by MyWebGrocer. Did you compete because there was a prize?
LHT: I didn’t, no. I wanted to meet more hackers. I was interested to see who was going to show up. That’s why I registered. It was a surprise. [My teammate Jim Carroll] and I were kind of sitting there talking, and weren’t really paying attention when our name came up. It was great.
Jim’s motivation was to get out of the house, because he’s a coder [who works from home], and he doesn’t know a lot of programmers. And he was like, "Wow, I went to UVM, and I haven’t seen this many college kids [since then]."
I don’t consider myself a hacker. I’m not that talented. But I like to get in there and play with code and build websites. He’s definitely the high-powered coder. It was just so refreshing for him to be surrounded by others who really valued it.
The cash was nice, but it was icing on the cake.
CR: What did you do with the money?
LHT: We split it. And, I don’t even remember. Paid some bills. I wish I could say I did something like, "I went to Spain for two weeks!" But I’m sure I paid bills.
CR: Why did you want this job at the OCE?
LHT: I think I wanted this job because it was a larger platform to do a lot of what I’m doing already. I also happen to just love film and new media. And I think there really is a lot of opportunity to use Vermont’s locations. I’d love to see the first green-screen studio open up somewhere so we could really inspire young people with hands-on experimentation and learning about new-media production.
I do like the kinds of stories we tell in Vermont. They’re quirky stories. They’re very often human stories — there isn’t a big sort of special-effects-driven narrative. And I’d like to see those stories thrive. I’d like to play a role supporting them.
And certainly I love our Main Streets, our downtowns, our compact towns. I’d like to see coworking and who knows what other models of independent work contribute to re-enlivening them. because they’re drying up. They’re struggling. It can’t all be restaurants. You’re not going to write that?
CR: Sure I am.
LHT: I think there’s opportunity for new kinds of businesses. You know, have you heard of Blu-Bin, and what they’re doing? I think these are exciting ideas. They may need a little support and encouragement.
Not all of these are going to succeed at the first go. But we need a mechanism to encourage that experimentation, to take risks, and still have support for that next go-round, that even better idea, that even better business plan.
I think I got a little bit of that in my blood, where it’s just, "Fail to invent, fail to invent, just keep whacking at a problem." I’d like to encourage that in our culture. I’d like to play a role.
Image of Lars Hasselblad Torres, top, by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur for Seven Days.
Image of Hack VT team at work by Matthew Thorsen for Seven Days.